Next time you visit a park, you can use tracking skills to discover what animals have recently passed through. If you see a uniform pattern of holes along a forest trail, you're hot on the heels of an aging hiker using a telescoping walking stick. If you see a profusion of flat plastic drink box straw wrappers blowing in the wind, you can't be far from a howling pack of preschoolers. If you find a collection of beer cans nesting at the bottom of a cliff, look up: The common habitat of the partying teen is just overhead.
Parks are for people. Everything about them is designed for our use and enjoyment. They accommodate our vehicles, our games, our waste and, let's face it, our abuse. But they are ours and, well, some of us are just hard on our things.
Now imagine a place where you can see wildlife, hike trails and experience Minnesota in all seasons — but it's not a park, it's not yours. It exists first to protect the land, water, plants and animals from our use, although we are welcome to visit.
Belwin Conservancy is a place like that. Encompassing a patchwork of nearly 1,364 acres in Afton and West Lakeland Township, this nonprofit nature preserve and outdoor education resource started in the 1958, when Charlie and Lucy Bell began buying parcels of land in the east metro to protect from development. In 1970, they donated the land to create the Belwin Foundation, which developed a learning facility in conjunction with the St. Paul Public Schools. As a result of their efforts, 10,000 schoolchildren visit the preserve every year; Valley Creek is one of the cleanest, best trout streams in Minnesota; and Belwin is one of the only places in the metro to see tallgrass prairie, ground nesting birds, and native butterflies — and the only metro place to see a herd of bison in their native habitat.
"The bison are the biggest reason people come here, and it's pretty easy to see them. They are visible from [Stagecoach Trail] most afternoons," says Ned Phillips, membership coordinator at Belwin. When I visited with my family, lazy teenage bison were piled up against the fence along Hudson Road, so close we could have gone up and petted them (if we were truly stupid). The herd was split into two groups, and we viewed the more lively contingent from a cool observation tower that lets visitors watch the bison slowly restore the prairie with their hoofs and poop.
Belwin's mission is twofold: Conservation and education. The conservation effort, led by the Bells' grandson, David Hartwell, board chair, is focused on restoring the original prairie landscape and kicking out the invasive species. The bison are a tool in that process, and the areas they have worked already display greater plant diversity. (The bison are at Belwin only during the summer months; in fall, they return to a partner farm in Rice Lake, Wis., and ultimately, they find their way to Kowalski's meat counter). A Legacy grant helped Belwin undertake the state's largest oak savanna restoration.
A looping network of public trails through the Stagecoach Prairie Natural Area winds through pine and oak forests, wetlands and prairie at a rolling grade that is manageable in small segments for families with young children, and satisfying for those with longer legs. Skiers are welcome in the winter.
"This area gives visitors a real sense of place — they can see what this region is really like, with gentle hills and a great wide-open view of the sky," says Phillips. The parking area fits about five cars, so it never gets crowded. "It's a nice little gem. You can get out there and get the feeling of being by yourself."
More public trails run through a section of prairie adjacent to the Lucy Winton Bell Athletic Fields, which provide area leagues recreation space. But the greatest public use comes from school groups. Every elementary student in the St. Paul schools visits Belwin twice — a memorable rite of passage. "I have had parents say they couldn't sleep the night before their children were coming to Belwin, because they had such strong memories of being at Belwin themselves as kids," says Phillips. The hope is that outdoor science education will help kids understand and appreciate the landscape that is their heritage, and encourage them to protect and preserve Minnesota's beautiful natural areas for their own grandchildren — or at least to pick up their pop bottles when they visit the park.
Amy Goetzman is a Twin Cities writer.